Gamasutra's Best of 2013: Leigh Alexander's Top 5 Video Games
Gamasutra contributing editor Leigh Alexander (@leighalexander) continues our end-of-the-year series by sharing her picks for the best games of 2013.
There are all kinds of reasons I write about video games. To help elevate the conversation, to help ensure a variety of voices are included, to contribute to new and different ways of understanding and thinking about the work of design, the experience of play, and ourselves as players.
My primary and simplest motive, though, is that I love talking about games, and I want to be able to talk about them with as many people as possible, as opposed to solely within the dense and relatively-insular passion community. That isn't always an easy thing to do, since the average person I encounter has an incredibly limited view of the medium's breadth, depth and variety.
Historically I've dreaded the routine, courteous so what do you do
conversation at parties and social events outside my industry. I've tried being confidently truthful -- I write about video games, I do criticism and industry writing. I've tried obfuscating -- I'm a journalist. In tech. Well, video games, mostly. Yeah. And I've tried dolling it up, with the sugar-frosted I write about interactive entertainment and social media, with a focus on the culture of play and experience design, often with a feminist lens
. I know, I know.
No matter how I try to put it, though, the result usually ends up a reverberating bafflement that makes me feel as if suddenly someone's torn off my 'grown-up disguise' to reveal some anomalous perma-child weirdo. Always, after asking me a lot of questions about my job, someone with a look of discomfort on their face inevitably still wants to know, so do I play
In the years since I began doing this work, it's gotten increasingly easier as audiences are being offered ever more ways to access and understand an exploding variety of games. At the very least, the economic muscle of the core business helps give people the vague idea that there might be some interesting material for a writer in this space.
Don't get me wrong -- I don't expect to ever really stop having those conversations. And ultimately the most important goal for me is that my work resonates with the designers and players I care about, less that I make sense at cocktail hour (not an easy task as it is). Nonetheless, I care most about games with the potential to play a meaningful role in human learning and interaction, in ways that are larger than pure consumer culture and escapist entertainment.
I love the games that joyfully chew up my hours and keep me company on long bus rides, but treasure most the ones I can talk about with all kinds of people, and the times those games genuinely have a role to play in my larger conversations about the world.
And this was a great year for that. Lately, when someone in a bar asks me the politely-intended prompt so what's, like, the best game right now
, it seems like my answers genuinely strike their further curiosity, rather than losing my listener in halting vaguery about genres and 'choices' and fantasy plots. I see the social protocol of demonstrating interest to be polite slowly give way to genuine dialogue.
Or friends are discussing an issue, and one person says there's a movie about that
and I can add there's a game about that
and there seems to be a parity in what each media object adds to the discussion. More than ever, I can talk about creators, too, and how these games are the product of the distinctive and interesting ways creators express themselves.
The games I loved the most this year also turned out to be able to spark conversation and empathy in people I met. To me, this is a list (in no particular order) of games that help comprise the game industry as I personally most love to see it. They make me feel proud and grateful to have the job I do.
While traveling internationally, Lucas Pope became fascinated by all the document-checking, paper-shuffling and rubber-stamping that goes on at borders, and thought it'd be a fun game. Papers, Please
is definitely fun, a gleefully-vicious cognitive and mechanical challenge that explicitly asks the players to do the impossible -- manage an ever-evolving list of requirements for accurate work permits, tourist and resident paperwork in a complicated climate -- quickly and under duress.
Earlier this year Pope told me he's a little disappointed
so much of the critical response to Papers, Please
has lavished on its un-fun-ness. But that's because inside an experience about complex systems, Papers, Please
provokes thought about the complex systems of the real world: It asks questions about bureaucracy by letting the player take the role of one of the least-powerful agents within a bureaucracy.
Its bleak, ambiguous Soviet-bloc setting evokes anxiety about The State as an entity, and reveals how little information we really have
about whether that state is just. Should our role be to do our best within the system, prioritize our loved ones, trust authorities, foment revolution? Sometimes, through a laudable balance of scripted events and minute-to-minute decisions, players find themslves squeezed between irreconcileable goods, and it's enlightening: It illuminates the puzzles of authority, complicity, nationalism and the self in relation to others that we are so rarely asked to critically consider.
Gone Home by The Fullbright CompanyGone Home
faced significant consumer resistance: It's not a "real game" because you can blow through everything and finish it quickly if you want to, because there is no combat, because it's about reading and looking and listening, because it's 'just' a family story, and the only reason anyone likes it is because there are lesbian teens
in it and everyone is, like, obsessed with 'political correctness' right now, or something.
Just don't buy it if you feel that way, I'd say. But somehow it wasn't enough for those people simply not to buy it. They were clearly stricken with a forceful terror about what it would mean if Gone Home
was successful, was embraced by critics, resonated with fans who'd been waiting for a game like it for some time. So what does it mean, that the game was all of these things?
achieves the important victory of demonstrating that games can indeed have stories, and be about everyday people -- families, marriages, siblings, even girls
-- without cynicism, without market research, without "choices" or dialogue or violence. And further, that they might be more affecting through simple humanity than through the high-tech 3D-modeled uber-realities that the industry has promised us will bring us "maturity" all this time.
Interestingly enough, beyond this clean, simple bravery is the fact that Gone Home
actually showcases the ideal of solving design problems through logical decisions
. The game was born from the four-member Fullbright Company's rational understanding of its goals and limitations -- can't model people? Make the house empty. Don't want to break reality? Make the family have recently moved, so that a house strewn with the detritus of a life in progress makes a useful playing field, not an interruptive one. Want the player to touch and read rather than sit at a computer poring over emails? Set it in the 90s.
Most of the game's most powerful elements aren't happy accidents
, nor the result of sentimental people pawing around in vague space. They actually come from the fact Gone Home
is made by people who are very, very good at game design, and who delivered a resonant, transformative experience mainly by knowing that less is more
. That's almost even more impressive than the fact the team invested their hearts and souls into a slightly-risky but simple story with grace and restraint. What are people so afraid of?
868-HACK by Michael Brough
The word "roguelike" has been everywhere this year. Could the increased accessibility of dev tools be contributing to renewed fascination with the space between programmers and players? Might our fascination with risk and randomness be a result of the increased streamlining of social media, or a backlash against "polish" and predictability of player behavior as ultimate values in commercial development?
Don't know, but I fell obsessively in love with Michael Brough's 868-HACK
this year -- its sharply-tuned understanding of risk and reward, its compelling visual shorthand, and the sharp imprint of one of recent years' most interesting and distinctive creators. Brough makes mathematical things feel vibrantly alive
, like a bouquet of clearly-drawn veins.
made me feel as if I'd pried the black glass face off of the iPad itself to touch the glowing circuits within, a grid populated with bugs, glitches and radiant sigils. It comes into brilliant clarity slowly but surely: You guide a simple happy-face icon through eight chunky sectors, siphoning data, avoiding detection by dangerous viruses, and executing programs. Dark, hostile synth growls as if from within the machine, and alongside the precise, brilliantly hooky gameplay is an aesthetic that's pure primal computer guts, arcane and monolithic.
When I play it on the bus I secretly hope onlookers think I'm hacking the planet, balancing resource-gathering with planning the array of abilities those resources power, against the high-level, high-risk goal of siphoning points. Every movement spawns hostiles. I've never been a scoreboard-chaser until now: I dive into those glitch-infested data mines, I run at Sector 8 again and again, touching the screen, breath held, as if it were a sparking wire. I'm obsessed.
Brough has told me he's sorry -- for making me a compulsive, for spending so many words on his answers to my questions. His self-effacement makes him only more sagelike in my estimation.
I know a lot of people from the trad space don't "get" Twine games. Among the vast and rich landscape of games being made in the free, hyperlink-oriented tool Porpentine's work is particularly prominent -- and also relatively challenging. As a writer she often speaks the language of trash, slime, blood and other intimate, deeply-felt concepts that don't immediately invite mainstream game fans.
But one of the things I've appreciated most about the Howling Dogs
creator's work is the many ways she bends Twine to her will, knitting delicate and elaborate node maps together to convey an actual sense of physical space to the player. Spend a little time with one of her games and it absolutely doesn't feel like "reading and clicking decisions," but traveling inside an abstract world born inside the creator's mind. That sense of space and permanence about objects and decisions, coupled with Porpentine's distinctive poetic vocabulary, is one of my favorite things about her work.
Ultra Business Tycoon III
is fundamentally a game about video games and what they mean to us
, from a variety of angles. Twine creators are often brought up in conversations about 'outsider art'
("why not just call it 'art'," Michael Brough recently said on the subject while we were at an event), but UBTIII
, in its way, unfurls an intimate story: how the compelling textures, half-understood rulesets and blunt-edged landscapes of our childhood games were the safest places for many of us to be.
The game's world is assembled of tantalizingly-foreign landscapes, vividly described. One zone is the subject of internet rumors about being able to view a woman's intimate parts, at a point in the protagonist's life when such things feel like nonsense-thought. It's nostalgic to recall butting heads -- needfully -- with a system that compels in spite of its caprices. It even requires an ASCII companion 'sheet' in order to get past the fictionalized shareware gating.
The dissonance between player and game exists as an emotional space, whether through the wry humor of recognition (the game's LOAD screen advises you not to mess with your big sister's save file) to later moments that underline, with subtle but striking humanity, that games are contained things that exist as components of our real lives, and that our experience of them is always informed by the real-world contexts in which we play.
Vlambeer's Ridiculous Fishing
saw a painful birth. By now you've probably heard of the cloning scandal
that concussed a disheartened but resilient indie team -- through which they persisted to eventually release the stylish, agile fish-catcher-shooter that would go on to become the App Store's 2013 game of the year.
Pixelly-looking indie game with distinctive physics-oriented mechanic and chippy music goes gangbusters. Not news, anymore. But it's hard to feel blase about Vlambeer's success when they keep trying so hard to pay it forward. Vlambeer's Rami Ismail is a genuine pillar of his community, sharing thoughts on competition
in writing, making the Presskit()
tool to help fellow devs reach the media, and showing care for colleagues in public spaces. The success of Ridiculous Fishing
, at a fixed $3 price point that had no intention of experimenting with popular free-to-play models, became an important example
of how the industry mustn't leap to assume that micropayments always lead to a more valuable experience for players.
Not that this stuff has anything to do with the game itself. It's just that with all my high-minded talk about "broader conversation", and games with messages and impact, I sometimes end up being That Person -- glassy-eyed queuing at the bank, face to my phone. Missing my train stop hunched over something bright and compelling, poking frantically at the screen while people stare at me. Palming the device in my pocket at a boring lunch, wondering how much Ridiculous Fishing
I might be able to get in when my companion finally goes to the bathroom.
I love a sharp, hooky game as much as anyone, and this one has me. It'll probably have me forever. It's not a small thing, for a game to become part of one's long-term lexicon. But to feel that I genuinely like and believe in the real people behind this particular one -- that I wish for their continued success, because they represent some of the best of the game industry -- makes my relationship to Ridiculous Fishing
just a little bit more meaningful.
It's a great game, but it stands for something, too, whether it meant to or not.
Check back for more of Gamasutra's staff picks over the course of the week! Read EIC Kris Graft's top 5 right here, blog director Christian Nutt's list here, contributing editor Kris Ligman's list here, and UK editor Mike Rose's here.